The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama
The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

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The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

4 The transatlantic relationship

The centre of the liberal international order in the period after the Second World War was the set of relationships and extensive and institutionalised forms of economic and military cooperation established between the USA and Western Europe, as well as, by extension, Japan. However, while the period after the end of the Cold War prompted speculation as to how far this liberal world order might spread geographically, the Obama administration had to deal with significant tensions that had arisen within the liberal world. These centred first on America’s use of military force outside of the liberal core, and second on questions over America’s continued economic leadership. Understanding these tensions will necessitate us understanding different kinds of US power at work.

There were perhaps two key areas of tension in US relations with the other liberal powers facing the Obama administration. First, inherited from the Bush administration, was a set of disagreements around the future of the NATO military alliance. In part this centred on the overall purpose for NATO in the post-Cold-War world. One fault line on this issue lay between the newer eastern European members, who wanted NATO to concentrate on its original purpose of defending Europe against Soviet (now Russian) aggression, and those who saw NATO’s chief purpose in mobilising military force for ‘out of area operations’. As you will see in the next section, while the Bush administration pursued an aggressive policy towards Russia within Europe, by promoting the eastward expansion of NATO and by vociferous criticism of Russian policy in its neighbouring states, the Obama administration began its spell in office attempting to improve relations with Russia. However, that stance merely poses in sharper relief disagreements over other NATO actions, most notably the war in Afghanistan, and the broader question of the use of military force in pursuit of Western security aims outside the traditional NATO area of operations. On the latter, despite considerable diplomatic efforts, Obama struggled to persuade many US allies (particularly France and Germany) to provide more troops to help fight the war in Afghanistan. Thus while the invasion of Afghanistan, in the wake of the attacks of 9/11, was so far the only time that NATO’s collective security clause – Article 5 – has been invoked, the war itself has primarily been a US endeavour. While some European states, most notably the UK, have been willing supporters of US military actions, many others, especially France and Germany, have been resistant to the use of force to achieve collective ends. Key divisions over the use of force in Iraq, expansion of the war in Afghanistan and the threatened use of force against Iran in response to that country’s nuclear weapons programme remain problematic, and it is not clear what the Obama administration might do to persuade its allies to change their stance. In part, European objections are a product of domestic political circumstances where there is widespread opposition to what is seen as US belligerence, but they also reflect the fact that the EU, as distinct from its member states, has only economic power at its disposal. Such divisions leave unanswered the redefinition of an overall security purpose for NATO.

The second area of tension facing Obama is the West’s reaction to the financial crisis and worldwide recession of 2009. Here, the new administration sought to address the economic problems domestically through bailouts of ailing banks and US car manufacturers in order to protect jobs and shore up the financial system, and through a massive government spending programme to stimulate economic activity. However, internationally, it also sought to get agreement from other industrialised countries to join in a coordinated stimulus to the world economy – to follow the USA’s and to some extent the UK’s lead in responding to recession. The initial focus for these efforts was the meeting of the Group of 20 (G20) in London in April 2009. However, here, despite a rapturous public reception, the USA met stiff opposition – especially from France and Germany, who demanded commitments to stronger financial regulation. In addition, led by China, the USA also agreed to some of the stimulus being organised and delivered through the IMF via an expansion of its Special Drawing Right facility. Both of these concessions had been anathema to US governments for some time and were taken as a sign of divergence between the USA and European powers, and of relative weakness of the USA’s ability to set the terms of cooperation within the West. Such tensions were added to by the ongoing stalemate in efforts to conclude a further round of trade liberalisation within the WTO, and for some the recession raised the spectre of increased protectionism across the world economy.

In light of the discussion of Americanism and imperialism, how might we characterise these tensions within the liberal core?

One way of answering this question is to focus on the increasing tensions within the liberal world as American economic power wanes relative to others. This view, which emphasises the competitive rivalries among Western states, suggests that the problems that the USA confronts are a product of an underlying shift in the position of the USA relative to other states. During the Cold War, American power was based on:

  • an asymmetry of coercive power resources: the USA’s military and economic advantages gave it a unique ability to impose costs on others
  • the USA as a pole of attraction: its economy, culture and politics were a target of imitation that others sought to replicate or emulate
  • hegemonic leadership: US political and ideological leadership was able to fashion coordinated, if not consensual, positive-sum solutions to many of the collective action problems faced by the leading capitalist states (such as management of international trade and finance, for example).

The end of the Cold War, however, signified a dramatic shift:

  • the replication of the American model outside the USA resulted in a process of catch-up, diminishing US coercive power
  • with catch-up and with the demise of the communist threat from the Soviet bloc, unity within the capitalist world has diminished as other states become less willing to accept US political leadership, leading to an increase in geopolitical competition
  • the USA is driven to rely increasingly on its remaining military advantages to prop up its political leadership.

Activity 3

What notions of power underlie this presentation of US relations with its transatlantic allies?


You can see in this account some of the shared Leninist and realist ideas noted in Activity 2. Indeed, realist analyses of the post-war order see the evidence of catch-up as deeply problematic for the USA, as it implies a relative decline in capabilities and therefore a shift in the balance of power against America. If, as theories of hegemonic stability argue, American leadership is based on the ability to impose costs on other states, then the prospects for cooperation in the transatlantic alliance in the future are poor. Leninist theorizing (and ideas of super-imperialism) shares much of this approach, also positing a relationship of rivalry between different national imperialisms.

While there is much truth in this brief characterisation of the post-Cold-War prospects for American power, our discussion of Americanism and empire in Section 3 should also give us pause for thought. Two important aspects of power are implied in the above argument:

  • that relations between the USA and other capitalist powers are predominantly zero-sum rivalries and that, given the chance, other states will seek to challenge US leadership, leading to a decline in cooperation
  • that military capabilities and political power are closely linked, that is, that military advantage can relatively easily be translated into political leadership.

But is this the right way to interpret US relations with the capitalist core – does economic competition lead to political conflict in this way? There are two ways in which we might question this explanation. First, although it is right to emphasise the importance of the Cold War in cementing the alliance among the leading capitalist states, an overemphasis on the military aspects of containment of communism may hide deeper and more enduring areas of cooperation. Certainly, US policy in this period was guided above all by containment, and dominant explanations of this policy focus on the military and security aspects, the arms race, troop deployments and the worldwide alliance system that the Americans created to counter Soviet influence. However, a key part of containment policy was also born of a recognition that the threat to capitalism also arose out of the failures of capitalist development. The expansion and stabilisation of capitalism, first in Western Europe and then in the developing world, was thus an ever-present element of US strategy against communism. From the United States’ point of view, what the post-war order needed was a set of domestic and international arrangements that would allow investment, production and – above all – trade to operate unhindered by direct state political control. In turn, this would necessitate the reconstruction of national economies and their integration into international markets in those regions where capitalist development was already established, and the ‘development’ of capitalist forms where they were absent. In this light, economic catch-up with the USA was less a problematic side-effect of the USA’s military over-stretch than a direct and central part of US strategy. It – and the broader expansion of Americanism that it entailed – has also laid the basis for a more durable arena of cooperation. However, until now, the USA has been able to act as hegemon in relation to the other liberal states; but the crisis, and its roots in America itself, calls into question its capacity to continue to do so. While it still has the military capability to act more or less unilaterally, doing so without wider Western support increases the costs of such action significantly, as it found in Iraq. The economic crisis of 2008–09 poses the question as to whether there will increasingly be limits on its ability to lead on matters of economic management as well, and this has implications for the stability of the international system as a whole.


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